12/10/2012 04:38 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Social Media Voices, Sounds and Human Trust

Radio broadcasters have long understood the emotional value and power of the human voice, yet current social media have not yet fully leveraged this.

In an age of computerized telephone systems, the human voice can be lost. Vehr Communications in 2011 noted the frustration surrounding automated systems: "When it comes to customer service, the power of the human voice goes a long way."

Vehr cited Hyojung Park's doctoral work at the University Missouri, which found that:

"Perceptions of relationships with an organization seem to be significantly more favorable when the organization's social networking page has a human presence rather than an organizational presence. Levels of trust, commitment, and satisfaction from users all appear to be positively affected by the use of the human voice in social media."

It should not be surprising that the sound of a compassionate human being may promote feelings of trust, but this may also be important in branding. Heidi Cohen wrote earlier this year that a human voice can be connected to a brand that takes the customer beyond "corporate-speak" to a more conversational tone -- one that actually sounds "like a person."

Jim Burress notes that the human voice often can be found on public radio. Drawing from storyteller Studs Terkel, Burress points out that human voice injects emotion into communication: "In a time when it's sexy to throw a prefix on the word 'media,' -- social media, multimedia, new media -- there's an old medium thriving -- public radio. Why? Because public radio delivers not just vox, but vox humana."

PBS animated a recording of Studs Terkel, as he made a plea for "the sound of a human voice" in modern society.

A casual survey of current social media platforms finds a decided technological bias against the human voice. Facebook promotes text and photographs, as well as an occasional voice through a YouTube video, SoundCloud clip or podcast link. Google+ offers the opportunity for small group hangouts, but these are not yet very popular. Twitter is mostly text, links and photos. Pinterest and Instagram promote photos. Sound recording spaces, such as Cinch, fell flat because of a lack of sociability. Given that social platforms, such as Twitter, sometimes resemble the chatter of citizens band or ham radio, it is intriguing that human voices have fallen silent.

Courtney Seiter has offered some excellent examples of brands leveraging human voices to promote the three C's: Culture, Community and Conversation. Clearly the concept of "voice" can also speak to the broader representation of brand identity.

Comedian Steve Allen is credited as once saying that, "Radio is theater of the mind; television is theater of the mindless." Radio, more than any other medium, has taken advantage of the idea that people can process sounds -- particularly the sound of the voice -- and use imagination to fill in the blanks.

In Ira Skutch's Five Directors: The Golden Years of Radio (1998), Peter Goldmark was quoted as saying, "If radio had been invented after television, radio would have been the survivor, once you discovered that you could create your own images through your mind's ear" (p. 101).

Despite the fact that people tried to proclaim the death of radio several times in my lifetime, the industry has managed to re-create itself through innovation. The persistence of radio, I think, speaks to something deeper about human stories, storytelling and the importance of oral history.

Families hand down stories to the next generation. Likewise, nations, cultures, religions and other traditions are sustained through stories. Great storytellers, such as Garrison Keillor, connect us to mythical places and common experiences through humor and resonance with real experiences. His radio voice, as well as many others over the years, fuses an emotional attachment.

Tony Schwartz, who pioneered use of language and sound in the Daisy Ad and other political advertising, expanded on Marshall McLuhan's "inner trips" -- sounds trigger memories of experiences. Schwartz said, "The content is really a resonance between the stimuli, or what people hear, and their reaction." McLuhan discovered that, in such an environment, "the audience becomes workforce" by filling in the blanks.

Media scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson noted that we've known since Aristotle that co-created messages are more persuasive. In this sense, the crowdsourcing of modern social media offer new opportunities through engagement for audience participation in message adaptation. It's within this context that the power of the human voice should be re-examined.

Gerontologists tell us that the sound recording of a relative who has died can be one important way to keep memories alive. The same can be said when we hear the recording of a celebrity who has passed away. The human voice carries a richness that cannot be replicated in any other form. Some brands use familiar voices in television advertising to create a feeling of comfort.

As we look to advance social media, I'd like to see us pay more attention to the important role of voices and sounds. There are tremendous opportunities to build engagement through authentic voices that express the wonder of what it means to be human.